(A sailor’s) Home is where the Hearth is

(A sailor’s) Home is where the Hearth is

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Photographed around 1878, this ornamental box-shaped building doesn’t look home-like, but if you were a 19th century sailor arriving in Melbourne’s Docklands, it was a much-needed sanctuary between long sea voyages.

It was the Melbourne Sailor’s Home, which sat at the corner of Little Collins and Spencer streets, next door to Finley’s Hotel (opened 1872) which can be seen on the far right of the image.

For decades the docks were where it all happened. Everything and everyone passed through the docks. 1861 saw 30,000 shipping crew from 1778 vessels arriving in Victoria’s ports. As soon as these sea-dogs got their pay and found their land legs, notoriety was bound to follow.

An article in The Mercury in 1864 described the usual sailor of the period as “the plucky, dissipated, jolly devil-may-care fellow who has a wife in every port and spends his money in grog and ‘divarshin’ in the most engaging manner possible”. With 19th century West Melbourne known for its seedy underbelly of gambling halls and brothels, there were far too many temptations to lure a man astray from the straight-laced, Christian ideals of his Victorian-era contemporaries.

Concerned with sailors’ welfare, Melbourne’s first harbour master, Captain Charles Ferguson, sent a letter to the Chamber of Commerce on January 17, 1862. According to The Argus, he feared that sailors were at risk of being “injured morally and physically” and that debauchery would “engender a dislike for discipline” and discontent. Claiming that the isolation of sea life was to blame for a lack of mutual support, he suggested the formation of a Sailors’ Home (already common in England) to help keep the sailor from immoral activity. This plea lit a fire under the community and the next three years saw meetings, the formation of a committee, land chosen at Spencer St (where an immigration depot used to stand), and the public raising over £3700.

The home opened in 1865, across the road from the train station. Designed by Alfred L Smith in a modern Italian style, the 27m x 40m three-storey building had a library, billiards room and rooms for dining, smoking, and sleeping. For 18 shillings a week a sailor would have a large, clean, well-ventilated bedroom, four meals a day and beer with his dinner. If a lodger was penniless, they could work for their board. Sailors’ good behaviour at the home was vouched for by Superintendent John George Albenry during an 1870 Royal Commission on charitable institutions. In particular, he claimed that in five years of business, he “locked up” just two out of 8000 sailors who had sought lodging at the home. Despite the goodwill, the home wasn’t hospitable to all: when the Sydney Morning Herald investigated the building in 1866, they noted that darker-skinned sailors who applied would be discouraged by the Superintendent “because the white men have a prejudice against them”. Curiously, one sailor of such description was also found scrubbing the floors working for his board “as is practice in such cases”.

Initially capable of housing 50 sailors, the self-supporting institution became crowded, prompting a fundraiser ball to be held on December 31, 1867 to raise money for an extension. Held at the “new” Exhibition Building (most likely the recent State Library extensions) the ball was honoured by a visit from the Duke of Edinburgh and £1200 was raised. With its extension, the home offered over 100 rooms. For a long time, its superintendent was Methodist preacher, Captain James Robilliard. James also doubled as the only shipping agent in Melbourne authorised to seek crewmen on behalf of sea captains, preventing sailors from being crimped (or kidnapped) and exploited.

The home was commonly known as a dormitory, but it had other uses during its existence. Some of the rooms were shipping offices, supplying sailors with new work opportunities during their stay. From 1876 it would be the meeting place of the Victorian Shipwreck Relief Society, a charitable association that assisted orphans and widows of sailors who died at sea, or were victims of vessels wrecked “in or near Victorian waters”. In later years the home also housed non-nautical associations, including offices for the accountant of the Victorian Railways and the Locomotive Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association.

At its peak, the home housed up to 2000 sailors a year, but by the 1890s depression, numbers dwindled to a few hundred. When the Weekly Times reported on the building in 1902, only 30 of the 120 rooms were occupied, and only one of the lodgers was paying. In 1903, the building was sold to the Metropolitan Melbourne Board of Works and the home moved to a William-Pitt designed building in Siddeley St in 1904, where it ran, in ever diminishing form, until the 1960s.

As for the original Spencer St building, the Board of Works re-fitted it for office work, with one room occupied by chief engineer (and the man behind our sewer system) William Thwaites. The building once more would become overcrowded, but this time to its detriment. By the 1960s, neglect had seen it fall into disrepair, with one staircase on the verge of collapse. It (and the neighbouring hotel) was put out of its misery by that infamous grim reaper of heritage, Whelan the Wrecker, in the early 1970s. A new Board of Works Building would appear in its place in 1973 and it is now is occupied by a university.

Today, the romance of Melbourne’s maritime past can be found at the Mission to Seafarers and the Polly Woodside. However, the sight of a weary sailor, smelling of sea-salt and hauling his belongings along Spencer St looking for home comfort, is long gone •

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